Photo by Heather Middleton
By Joel Hall
"Knock, knock," said the doctor.
"Who's there?" a surprised patient asked from behind the examination room door.
"Orange," the doctor replied.
Playing along with the gag, the patient coyly answered back, "Orange who?"
"Orange you glad to see me?" Dr. Hector Lopez, Jr., asked with a smile as he entered the room.
As shown in her smile, the patient certainly was.
"I know all of my patients, so I know their personalities," Lopez said. "I make them comfortable, so they can tell me what's on their mind."
For 35 years, Lopez, an internal medicine specialist, has treated patients at his private, family practice in Riverdale with a unique mix of patience, humor, and understanding. During that time, Lopez has also served as a gastroenterologist at Southern Regional Medical Center, helping establish the hospital's outpatient center and chapel, serving as the hospital's former chief of staff, and conducting its first endoscopy, colonoscopy, and feeding tube placement procedures.
Over the years, Lopez has helped hundreds of people locate tumors, battle ulcers, and conquer metabolic disorders. At the end of March, Lopez, 65, will close his practice permanently in order to fight his own, personal battle with cancer.
Lopez, a native of Baguio City, Philippines, and a tae kwon do practitioner, learned in March of last year that he had metastatic multiple myeloma, a common form of bone cancer which infects bone marrow. After pain in his arm signaled doctors to a tumor on his spine, Lopez quickly found himself in the dual role of doctor and patient, he said.
"I couldn't believe it," Lopez said. "The word tumor just gets you all unglued. It was totally unexpected."
During the month of March last year, Lopez kept a full schedule of patients, taking radiation treatments during his lunch break and seeing patients in the morning and evening. Lopez has continued his practice as normal, until recently, when doctors informed him that extensive chemotherapy, and a stem-cell transplant, would be required to fully address his cancer, he said.
"I keep working ... I keep my appointments, and do what my doctors tell me to do," Lopez said. "The chemotherapy ... it's going to put me out of commission for at least six months. A month ago, I knew I had to close the practice."
In 1976, shortly after finishing a fellowship in gastroenterology at Emory University Hospital, Lopez moved to Riverdale and started his own practice with his wife, Brenda, whom he married the year before.
Four years prior to their marriage, Hector Lopez saved his future wife's life. At the time, Brenda Lopez, a clinical specialist and registered nurse, worked as the head coronary care unit nurse at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, Md., where Hector Lopez was completing his residency.
Ten days after receiving a crush injury from lifting a heavy patient, Brenda Lopez collapsed in the hospital due to a pulmonary embolism. Hector Lopez just happened to be the doctor on duty.
"I never met him before I opened my eyes in the emergency room," Brenda Lopez said. "I heard him take my hand and say, 'good morning ma'am.' That was the first thing he said to me. I was in the right place at the right time."
For the past 35 years, Brenda Lopez has worked as the nurse in charge of her husband's private practice. She said that over the years, the doctor has treated infants into their adulthood and monitored the health of adults into their senior years.
According to Mrs. Lopez, Dr. Lopez has developed a clientele that includes athletes, other physicians, and everyday people, some whom come from other states and as far as England, Switzerland, and Thailand to receive treatment. She said his deep faith, and his commitment to understanding people, has kept patients coming back through the years.
"He's like the little country doctor with newfangled tools," Brenda Lopez said. "He's never taken long vacations, he doesn't play golf. Some doctors get affluent and they move somewhere else. He bought a little house in Riverdale and we still live there. He's been a very important part of the community. It's not like a business, it's like a family [to him]."
"I want to help them [patients] help themselves," Hector Lopez said. "Sometimes people need a little education ... but it pays off. It takes a little time, but it is worth it because they don't repeat the same things over and over."
Southern Regional Medical Center Vice President of Medical Affairs Willie Cochran said Hector Lopez was the hospital's first, permanent gastroenterologist. Working with him as a surgeon in his earlier days, Cochran said Dr. Lopez has always cared for the "total patient."
"He really took care of patients in an old-fashioned way that you don't really see every day," Cochran said. "It wasn't always about gastroenterology. He gave complete time to all of the patient's needs. I think we are going to miss that in this modern world of practicing medicine.
"It's always a loss when someone of his stature leaves the hospital," he continued. "We do understand what he is up against. All of us here in the medical staff are wishing him the best and him and his family are in our prayers."
Hector Lopez said that while he is saddened to end his practice, he is proud of the work he has done in Riverdale over the past 35 years. He said he will work with his patients to find them new, suitable doctors and will continue take "the doctor's orders," as he tells his patients.
"I'm learning that it's not easy to be a patient," he said. However, "I have no regrets. I've helped the community."
Mrs. Lopez said thousands of supportive cards, calls and letters have poured into Dr. Lopez's office since he announced the closure of the practice. She said she believes the support will help her husband as he enters chemotherapy.
"I had an ex-Marine here the other day that was crying like a baby," she said. "People are so concerned that he gets well ... it is really touching. If prayers will help, he should be cured."